In Which I Become the Body in the Classroom. Literally.

In any city, in any country, in any university in which you have been enrolled, go into any classroom and silently say, I seek the Holder of the A. If when you open your eyes a professor stands at the lectern, then you have failed, class will proceed as normal, and your journey ends here. But if when you enter you are greeted by a prostrate woman, eyes-open and non-responsive, then quickly assemble in groups of five or else prepare for a horrific end. The mind is more fragile than you know, and there are worse things than death.

If you seek the Object clenched in the body’s hand, you must tell the corpse its own story: the myth of the Holder of the A.

Do not forget as you write, this is no myth. Do not touch the Holder or attempt to take the Object by force. If you do either, or if you fail to reinvent her in the allotted time, she will stay dead and you will be forever destined to fail no matter the task you undertake. Succeed, and the corpse will awaken, and offer you a crumpled, bloodstained note promising intellectual supremacy.

The note is Object 537 of 538. If you can attain it, success is yours.

If, like me, you lurked or participated on 4chan’s /b/ or /x/, you may be familiar with the generic conventions in the short prose piece above. It mimics the style of the Holders Series, a collection of creepypasta chronicling the tasks of reckless, curious individuals seeking to collect mystical objects that should never come together. In the vein of open-source fiction, the individual stories in the Holders series lack attribution and the mythos is collaboratively, transparently constructed based on communal negotiations concerning the generic conventions of horror and expectations for the story itself. The mythos is unstable, unfixed, and thus can be continually modified and augmented. As a case in point, while the first Holders story states there are 538 Objects, stories exist after #538, telling the story of Objects 539 of 538, 540 of 538, etc., and a sequel series, Legion’s Objects, was started to chronicle an additional 2000 Objects.

I wrote the piece quoted above as part of an experimental class on open-source fiction, fandom, and amateur production online. I did this exercise in a media studies course, but I think it would work equally well, or better, in a composition or creative writing classroom. More after the jump if you’re interested in replicating the exercise or just want to hear how it went.

The class is Social Media & Culture, with a full enrollment of 87 according to the roster, although actual attendance is roughly 40-60. While it’s meant to be a lecture class, I treat it as a mix between lecture and seminar whenever possible. I taught the class last semester as well, first while internally bleeding and then while recovering from surgery, so I naturally felt my pedagogy was lacking. Thus, all my creative efforts in Social Media & Culture this semester are a kind of pedagogical redemption, as well as a reminder that designing and enacting effective exercises is fun and fulfilling.

The day’s readings included Shira Chess’s “Open Sourcing Horror: The Slender Man, Marble Hornets, and Genre Negotiations,” which relates the values of Open Source Software to horror genre negotiations around the invention of The Slender Man mythos on Something Awful. I took the Holders series as the case study for my lecture, and so I patterned my video and farewell note after its particular conventions.

To prepare for class, I wrote the “Holder of the A” piece at the beginning of this post and also filmed myself, in my pajamas, in curtains-closed darkness, with my comforter up to my neck and my coffee mug clutched to my chest, early-morning haggard and speaking in the best gravelly, haunted voice I could muster:

You think this story is a myth. I’m here to tell you it’s true. I taught this unit for five semesters before I went looking for the Objects and the awful truth is I found them, and my journey ends here, as the new Holder of the A, who is a letter, who is anything and everything, who is an unsurpassed finality, who is gone now that I tried to take her Object by force. Now her eternal duty is mine, and what’s left of me is nothing. When you hear this I will be as good as dead, even though I can no longer die.

The journey is now passed to you.

But be cautious. I warn you: do not touch the Holder or her Object. Do not close your eyes and seek the safety of sleep or this nightmare will take you forever. Because every journey is a lived story, what you must do is this.

Together, in groups of five, no more than five, you must write the myth of the Holder of the A. It is my hope and belief that, in doing so, you will write me back to life. In case I am dead by the time class begins, I’ve left links in my slideshow to help you.

You have 30 minutes before I cease my existence as Prof. Mani and rise, as the new Holder, to exact my terrible vengeance. I will have 30 minutes from the time you start until I lose all the vestiges of my humanity.

I’m depending on you.

At the beginning of class, I set up my laptop to project the slideshow (first slide: “Help Me” written in blood) and lay down on my back on a table positioned in front of the projector screen. I then had my instructional assistant, an undergraduate student who took this class last semester, allow students into the room (I had written instructions for her in advance). She informed them that the professor’s body had been found along with a video and a note, and she proceeded to read the note—the piece that begins this blog post—and then played the video—the script for which I included here, right before the jump. She then reiterated that they needed to assemble in groups of no more than five and collaboratively write the story of the Holder of the A.

There were a few instructional and technical problems at first—my laptop wasn’t properly hooked up, and the students were a little confused after the assistant delivered instructions, so I had to abandon my corpse position, fix my laptop, and then tell them that they were about to experience what it’s like to “do” open source fiction. That was all I had to say for it to make sense to them, so I lay back down on my makeshift bier and listened to them work while my instructional assistant did a time-check every ten minutes. After 30 minutes, she told them to swap stories with another group, critique each other, and try to negotiate or reconcile any differences in the two myths. They did this for about 5 minutes, after which my back was really starting to hurt so I sat up and thanked them for writing me back to life.

From what I could hear while I was lying down, the room was bustling with excitement about the assigned activity. All the talk I heard was about how to fit the conventions of the existing Holders mythology; how to make it specific to Rutgers students or even to the specific classroom we were in; how to include the body (i.e., me) in the story because I was lying there so conspicuously it made the Object hard to ignore or exclude. I heard some humor, I heard some sounds of awe at how creepy or funny their creations were becoming, I heard them talk through lines and ideas together, instantly critique them, and instantly revise. In terms of enjoyment, I think the activity surprised them into total immersion. At the 30 minute mark I heard a young man remark, “But… she’s still dead? She’s still dead!” followed by laughter. It was actually hard to get them to come back to order because they were still buzzing about the stories they had just written.

My tie-in to the lecture about Chess’s article was simply to ask them to characterize their experience of open-source fiction. There was more participation in that discussion than I expected, and several insightful comments about the relation of this kind of writing to fanfiction communities; about the ease and low social cost of creating a story when an existing mythos and generic conventions have already been established; about the role of templating and online writing; and, interestingly, about my role as a body in the classroom, downgraded from authoritative lecturer to an undeniable, but unresponsive presence. When I began talking more specifically about Chess’s article, they seemed to intuit what the author meant based on their own recent experience of a similar phenomenon.

We ran out of time, as I expected, so I’m behind on the lecture material but I feel like the exercise nicely demonstrated not only what Chess writes about, but also phenomena, dynamics, and politics of gaming that we had discussed the previous week. The exercise would likely work great in a Creative Writing classroom, as a sort of collaborative, performative experiment, or in Composition and Rhetoric classroom as a way to point to “doing” emotion, body rhetorics, and “felt,” bodily habits of reading space and writing about it. While playing dead, I overheard one student note how “boss” my class was, to which another student replied that immersive, collaborative play while learning about kinds of collaboration and play really helped the material stick. A self-identified gamer tried to take the paper from my clenched fist, which resulted in my hilariously having to temporarily revive and take it back. Throughout the exercise, I heard laughter, I heard heated but playful negotiations, I heard zero incivility, and I heard no talk of anything but the Holder of the A and the presence of my “dead” body.

In short, I think the lesson was a success, and I’m thrilled to confirm for myself that I can once again trust my instincts when they tell me, the morning of class, Screw your traditional lecture. Let’s all play a game and learn about the material, about writing, and about ourselves.

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